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Latest research on SIDS

Considered a significant medical research discovery, Dr Harringtom, Naz Hofid and Professor Ann Waters from the SIDS and Sleep Apnoea Research Group in Australia have identified a possible cause for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is defined as “the sudden and unexpected death of an infant less than 12 months of age that remains unexplained after a review of clinical history, complete autopsy, and death scene investigations” (Pediatrics volume 137, number 6, June 2016 p1). SIDS has always been highly controversial, and its causes were, until recently, unproven and unknown. There are several different schools of thought regarding the risk factors. These include smoking during pregnancy, co-sleeping, and tummy sleeping. This has caused much anxiety and grief amongst parents and caregivers and some frustration to medical practitioners as the “back to sleep campaign” was introduced to prevent SIDS, but this campaign also unleashed a whole lot of additional problems, including interfering with the baby’s sleep, especially if they suffered from reflux, the development of the Flat Head Syndrome, and the interference of the development of the new-born.
According to Dr Harrington “Babies have a very powerful mechanism to let us know when they are not happy. Usually, if a baby is confronted with a life-threatening situation, such as difficulty breathing during sleep because they are on their tummies, they will arouse and cry out. What this research shows is that some babies do not have this same robust arousal response,” Harrington said in a press release. “This has long been thought to be the case, but up to now, we didn’t know what was causing the lack of arousal. Now that we know that Butyrycholinesterase (BChE) is involved we can begin to change the outcome for these babies and make SIDS a thing of the past.”
These researchers at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia have now identified the first biochemical marker that could help detect babies more at risk of SIDS while they are alive. The biomarker, an enzyme, called Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE), was analyzed. The study measured BChE activity in the blood of infants drawn at birth. It then measured the BChE in both SIDS victims and infants dying from other causes and compared those levels to those of surviving babies with the same birthday and gender. The study found that BChE levels at birth were significantly lower in babies who later died of SIDS when compared to BChE levels of infants who died of other causes and of living babies. BChE plays a major role in the brain’s arousal pathway. A lack or decrease in the activity of BChE, represents an autonomic cholinergic dysfunction. Researchers believe low levels of BChE likely indicate an arousal deficit, which reduces a baby’s ability to wake or respond to his or her environment. In other words, lower than normal levels of BChE are thought to be a vulnerability to SIDS (The Lancet, vol 80, June 2022).
“An apparently healthy baby going to sleep and not waking up is every parent’s nightmare, and until now there was absolutely no way of knowing which infant would succumb. But that’s not the case anymore,” Harrington said. “This discovery has initiated the possibility for intervention and finally gives answers to parents who have lost their children so tragically. These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault.” (Harrington, 2022)
What does this mean? There has been progress to SIDS prevention and detection. There is a biomarker that can be identified at birth and is directly connected to a vulnerability to SIDS. This, however, is just a preliminary finding and we hope that this will lead to numerous other studies carried out. This is an important beginning, as we need further research with larger samples to ensure that these findings are all definitive. Hopefully, this will also lead to more research within this field and the development of a screening or assessment tool where we can identify those babies at risk of SIDS and those not. This, in turn, will allow us as parents, caregivers, and medical practitioners to assist and provide (in both instances) the correct sleep environment and positioning for the new-born baby, which will result in possible assistance with sleep and the development of the new-born.
For more information and detail on the study please go to

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